The 2014 World Series came close to being the best one that nobody saw.
Despite dominating pitching by San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner and strong play by Kansas City’s collection of unrecognized talent, no one was watching baseball’s fall classic.
Well, that’s not exactly true. But, until a dramatic finish in Game 7, the Series was on track to be the least-watched since ratings were first tabulated.
The sad thing is that the World Series isn’t the premier sporting event it once was. Worse yet, it’s becoming an afterthought for many fans.
Just 10 years ago, the Series attracted about 25.4 million viewers per game - a number far below the 35 million to 40 million people who watched games in the late 1970s. Games 4 and 5 last weekend drew 11 million and 12.5 million viewers, respectively.
So what’s gone wrong with the seven-game championship of the sport once was recognized as the National Pastime? Just about everything.
When you pick up the morning newspaper and find a short story saying the game ended too late for that day’s edition - and you're sure the game didn’t go into extra innings - something is wrong.
Yet that too often happens when play actually begins sometime after 8 p.m. Eastern. Since games now run almost 3 1/2 hours, that means the final out comes sometime around midnight. Those who must rise early the next day to make it to work on time can’t handle many late nights.
That raises another question: If you aren’t going to see the end of the game, why bother watching the first few innings?
Major League Baseball’s executives – and their counterparts in the TV industry -- believe they can be all things to all people. They can’t. Trying to fashion a starting time for the World Series that serves audiences in New York and Los Angeles doesn’t work.
Most of the country’s population – about two-thirds of the 310 million-plus people – live in the Eastern and Central time zones. So, it only makes sense to set a starting time that fits their schedules. Sure, that might inconvenience the West Coast crowd, but at least it’s reasonable to think that they will pick up the game in the early innings and stay until the end.
If Major League Baseball was truly interested in reversing the declining interest in its main event, it would shorten the time it takes to play a game, as well as cut back on the length of its season.
There’s no reason games should drag on and on, but they do. It was rare back in the day of the Subway Series that a game would ever reach three hours, but that’s now routine – even when pitchers are dueling and runs are scarce.
Players' little idiosyncrasies make life seem interminable between pitches, and if there’s any way to slip in another half-dozen beer commercials, the networks will make sure than happens.
Plenty of baseball critics claim the game is dying, and they normally use TV ratings to bolster their argument. That thinking is flawed. All you have to do is go to a game on a warm summer night. Crowds are large and fans seem to be having fun. Of course, that can change when August rolls around, school starts back, and dreams of an exciting pennant race don’t materialize.
Baseball is a summer game and a regional one. We cheer for teams we follow, knowing that a 162-game season will produce numerous emotional peaks and valleys.
It’s bad enough that games begin with snow swirling in the air in many markets and continue until they return. The idea of wearing a parka to a game isn’t a good sales point.
Each sport’s expanding season has created too many games on too many nights. At this point in the year, no fewer than five professional leagues – baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer – are vying for our attention. We’ve reached the point of saturation.
Professional sports have become too much of a good thing. Baseball is paying a big price not only for its own excess, but for those of other sports, as well.
Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.